DONALD Trump’s and Vladimir Putin’s friendship has extended to the battlefield, with the US and Russia reportedly joining forces in the fight against Islamic State.
The Russian army said today it had carried out joint attacks with America on Islamic State targets in Syria.
The commander of the Russian air force contingent in Syria “received from the American side … the coordinates of IS targets in Al-Bab, in the province of Aleppo,” Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement.
“Two Russian air force planes and two planes of the (US-led) international coalition carried out air strikes against terrorist sites,” destroying arms and fuel dumps in the “joint operation”, the ministry said.
The US defence department denied the Russian claim but Mr Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters in Washington that the new US president is open to conducting joint operations with Russia to combat the Islamic State group in Syria.
“If there’s a way we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure, we’ll take it,” Spicer told reporters.
Russia and the US have been involved in Syria for a time but have mostly fought on opposite sides of the conflict. Damascus is a key Moscow ally, while the US has supported a coalition of rebel fighters.
President Trump has been open about his intention to improve relations with Russia and has pledged to destroy ISIS.
The news of co-operation between the Cold War foes came as Iraqi forces captured all of eastern Mosul, dislodging Islamic State militants from the last pocket they held east of Tigris river, the defence ministry said overnight.
Mosul is Islamic State’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.
“The armed forces succeeded in liberating the left bank of the city of Mosul completely, after inflicting heavy losses in lives and equipment to the enemy,” the ministry said in a statement on its website.
Mopping up operations were underway to clear a remaining pocket inside Rashidiya, a northeastern suburb of Mosul, said military spokesman Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool in a statement.
Iraqi forces launched a US-backed campaign in October to retake Mosul from the hard line Sunni group, which captured the city in 2014, declaring from its Grand Mosque a “caliphate” that also spanned parts of Syria.
A US-led coalition is providing air and ground support to the Iraqi forces.
The western side of Mosul could prove more complicated to take than the eastern as it has many narrow streets that tanks and other large armoured vehicles cannot pass through.
The militants are also expected to put up a tougher fight as they are cornered and the area under their control in the northern Iraqi city continues to shrink.
Mosul is the most populated city under control of the militants in both Iraq and Syria, with a pre-war population of nearly two million.
About 750,000 people are estimated to live in western Mosul. More than 160,000 have been displaced since the start of the offensive, according to the United Nations.
Peace talks with Syrian rebels and the war-torn country’s government got off to a rocky start.
The Syrian rebels’ representatives vowed to keep fighting if peace negotiations with the government of President Bashar al-Assad fail, as the first day of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana ended with no apparent breakthrough.
Tuesday’s meetings, organised by key players Russia, Turkey and Iran, could have marked the first time armed rebel groups negotiated directly with the Assad regime since the conflict erupted in 2011.
But the rebels backed out of direct talks because of the regime’s continued bombardment and attacks on a flashpoint area near Damascus.
However, they took part in indirect talks with the government and held a three-way meeting with Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, an encounter rebel spokesman Yehya al-Aridi described as “long and productive”.
“If the negotiations succeed, then we are with the negotiations,” another rebel spokesman Osama Abu Zeid told AFP.
“If they don’t succeed, unfortunately we’ll have no choice but to continue fighting.”
The negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital come amid a rapprochement between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, who have come to fill the vacuum left by months of US disengagement from the conflict.
Trump’s administration was invited to participate in the talks but did not send a delegation.
Washington is instead represented by its ambassador to Kazakhstan, while France and Britain also sent envoys.
A member of the rebel delegation told AFP that the group would agree to seeing Russia as a guarantor of the current ceasefire but not Iran, another Assad backer.
Aridi told reporters the “two sides are working on issues relating to the confirmation of the ceasefire” brokered last month by Ankara and Moscow.
“It’s not been a bad day,” a Western diplomat told AFP. “The delegations met, made presentations.”
Several rounds of failed talks in Geneva saw political opposition figures take the lead in negotiating with the regime.
But in Astana, the 14-member opposition delegation is composed solely of rebels leading the armed uprising, with members of the political opposition serving as advisers.
The initiative has been widely welcomed, but the two sides arrived in Astana with apparently divergent ideas on their aim.
Chief rebel negotiator Mohammad Alloush said in his opening statement that the opposition was focused on bolstering the nationwide truce, while Assad has insisted rebels lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
“We came here to reinforce the ceasefire as the first phase of this process,” Alloush said in comments broadcast online.
“We will not proceed to the next phases until this actually happens on the ground.”
Damascus has also called for a “comprehensive” political solution to a conflict that has killed more than 310,000 and displaced more than half of Syria’s population.
The head of the regime delegation, Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, said in his opening comments carried by the country’s SANA state news agency that he hoped the talks “will reinforce the cessation of hostilities”.
He added the government was keen to separate the rebels from IS and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.
Previous pushes for a long-term ceasefire have faltered, with both sides trading accusations over violations.
Although Russia and Turkey back opposing sides, they have worked hand-in-hand in recent weeks to try to secure an end to the brutal war and forged a partnership likely to be tested in Astana.